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Historical Mysteries

Without Fear, Cordelia Frances Biddle, BookSurge, $15.99.

Without Fear by Cordelia Frances Biddle

Usually I wouldn't touch a print-on-demand book with a barge pole, but for Cordelia Biddle, I made an exception. I loved her first two novels featuring Martha Beale, and I think she's a remarkable writer. The third one may be the best yet, which is saying a lot. Her writing style is on the unsentimental side, which is a good thing, because some of the topics she covers are truly wrenching.

In this novel, Martha and her almost beau Thomas Kelman have separated—not Martha's idea, but Thomas'. Thomas, an agent for the mayor, sees too huge a gap between their social standing for them ever to get together, and he's taken to the sea. Martha is thus somewhat distracted as events begin to unfold, in a very believable way. She's approached by Charles Dumont, also of a good family, who asks her as a favor to accompany him and his brother's wife—who appears to have some kind of mental issue—on a day trip as a tonic for his sister-in-law.

Martha agrees, and asks if she can bring her friend Becky Taitt, a former actress who has married a wealthy man and had his child but who feels at sea socially; at home, she's being mistreated (an understatement) by her husband. Charles agrees to this and they meet at the appointed time to visit an estate named Pointe Breeze in New Jersey.

Once there they enjoy a picnic and then take a brief tour of some of the subterranean tunnels under the estate—when they come up for air, they discover a corpse. The corpse is headless and appears to be that of a missing mill worker, Agnes Munder. Agnes' husband is crazed with worry as his wife has been missing for such a long time, and when he's arrested for her murder, he truly seems to lose his mind.

The ripples from the discovery of the body are many. Because of the unwanted publicity, Becky's husband is extremely angry, and begins to take his anger out on his wife, physically. Martha is a target for the disturbed husband of Agnes, and she's warned through her daughter, Ella. Because Martha is so distracted, she merely tells Ella the subject is unsuitable, and that she should be careful who she talks to.

This writer is exquisitely aware of the discomfort of place. Martha, wealthy and eligible, never the less feels uncomfortable attempting to take over her father's business dealings, thanks to her gender. Becky, an actress married into society, feels she will never fit in; Martha's daughter, Ella, an adopted child that has moved up about ten spots on the social ladder, feels the tug of her old life and her new one. The only person who seems comfortable in his skin in young Findal Stokes, introduced in the last book and making a re-appearance here.

Findal tries to warn Martha of the danger of Agnes' unstable husband, who holds Martha responsible for his imprisonment, through Ella. Findal refuses Ella's offer of food; he's comfortable on the streets. He's a breath of fresh air, as well.

The narrative motor in this outing is really revved up—this story is tight and well told, and when you get towards the end of the book you probably won't be able to stop reading. The writing casts a spell on the reader—it's almost a hypnotic experience.

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